Indonesia were, curiously, the first Asian country to qualify for a FIFA World Cup™. They nevertheless got there through the back door, after first Japan and then USA declined the chance to face them in a play-off for a place at France 1938.
The Gallic adventure of the Dutch East Indies, as they were known before independence from the Netherlands, lasted just 90 minutes, though. Johannes van Mastenbroek’s charges were thumped 6-0 by Hungary. Not one of them was ever capped again. Indonesia are the only team to have played just one FIFA World Cup match.
Default did, however, earn the south-east Asian archipelago a place at another major competition. Indeed, when the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Melbourne 1956 was besieged with drop-outs, Indonesia were, due to proximity, handed what all and sundry assumed would be a solitary appearance.
Their opponents in the second round were, after all, a magnificent Soviet Union side. It included outstanding players such as Lev Yashin, Igor Netto, Eduard Streltsov and Valentin Ivanov. It had beaten West Germany, the reigning world champions, in the first round. It was en route to becoming the maiden European champions.
Yet the hulking Soviet Union defenders were quickly given a rude awakening when Ramang, a pint-sized deep-lying forward, skipped past two of them and forced Yashin into a fine fingertip save. And although Gavril Kachalin’s men monopolised possession thereafter, they were frustrated by their failure to ripple the underdogs’ net and by the skills of Ramang on the counter-attack. The 32-year-old would have even snatched Indonesia the mother of all upsets in the 84th minute had it not been for another marvellous stop from the man widely regarded as the greatest goalkeeper in football history.
If the Soviets hadn’t known who Ramang was before that match, they certainly paid him attention heading into the replay. So much so that Kachalin ordered Netto, the team’s playmaker-in-chief, to adopt a more defensive role in order to negate the impact of the Indonesian No11. It worked. Soviet Union won 4-0.
The fact that the Soviets went on to seize gold in Melbourne augmented the legend of that epic Indonesian performance, which remains one of the most stunning results in Olympic history. Yet it was merely the capstone in a national pomp indebted to Ramang.
Intrinsically fast and having developed immaculate control by performing keepy-ups with oranges as a child, the attacker scored with military regularity following his Indonesia debut in 1952. Nineteen goals in just six games – including two trademark overhead-kicks –came during their Far East tour the ensuing year, in which the Indonesians lost only to Korea Republic.
Ramang then netted back-to-back braces as Indonesia eliminated China PR in Sweden 1958 qualifying, but they withdrew from the running for a FIFA World Cup berth after refusing to take on Israel for political reasons. Shortly before that tournament unfolded, Indonesia seized consolation by beating India 4-1 to finish third at the Asian Games, while after losing their opener to Korea Republic at the 1960 Merdeka Tournament, the Ramang-inspired Indonesians smashed home 20 goals in four consecutive victories to claim bronze. And when East Germany visited Jakarta for what they assumed would be a comfortable victory in 1959, Ramang broke the deadlock with a superb piledriver before his mazy run led to Endang Witarsa’s second in a 2-2 draw.
It was one of innumerable occasions fans of Indonesia or PSM Makassar, the club at which Ramang spent the majority of his career, were thrilled by a man who was forced to work low-pay jobs and live on the breadline just to indulge in the sport he loved.
And while arguably Indonesia’s greatest-ever footballer passed away 25 years ago this Wednesday, the legend of Ramang will continue to be told.